How Mexico's Presidential Election Will Change the War on Drugs

All three leading candidates say they'll focus less on halting trafficking and more on reducing violence.

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A young supporter of Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto attends a rally in Toluca. (Reuters)

Mexicans head to the polls today to vote in a presidential election that looks likely to return to power the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran the government from 1929 to 2000. Polls show PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto in a wide lead over rivals Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), despite the emergence of the "YoSoy132″ student movement that has rallied against the PRI's legacy of corruption.

Peña Nieto's "rhetoric is that he is from a different generation, it's a different PRI," says Council on Foreign Relations Mexico expert Shannon K. O'Neil, who I speak with here about Sunday's presidential election. But, she says, "it's hard to tell." The new president will need to accelerate the economy's "stable but fairly slow growth" and will inherit a violent drug war that has led to increasing insecurity for Mexicans, O'Neil says. On combating the drug cartels, she says that "the focus will probably change, but the actual policies implemented will see a lot of continuity."

Is it a foregone conclusion that Enrique Peña Nieto is going to win, or is there still room for surprises?

It's becoming increasingly hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn't win. There is still, depending on the polls, roughly 15 percent of the population that says they're undecided, and for most polls that would be enough of a percentage to change the results, assuming that that whole 15 percent didn't go to Peña Nieto, but that's kind of a large assumption.

Security is a top issue in this election. What do we know about the candidates' approaches to the drug war and security issues?

All of the candidates say they will change the strategy. And what they have said in different ways is that they will shift from focusing on a war against drug trafficking to reducing violence. What that means on the ground is a lot of continuity and not too much change. What it means is emphasizing and expanding efforts to professionalize police forces, probably moving from the focus of the federal system to looking at the state and local police forces and strengthening those. It likely means working to continue reforming the justice system, to strengthen the courts, to training and improving the capacities of the attorney general's office. It basically means continuing a lot of what [current President Felipe] Calderón has started and moved toward in the last several years. So the focus will probably change, but the actual policies implemented will see a lot of continuity.

Is there much difference between the candidates in terms of the drug war?

There's not a lot of difference. Peña Nieto has talked about a military gendarme, sort of a military police, but when you look at the actual policy platforms of the three different candidates, there's not a lot of difference, particularly [between] the PAN and the PRI.

The candidates haven't talked a lot about [the drug war] in speeches or debates, partly because none of them have an answer or proposal radically different from what the country is doing right now. The other issue is: You look at polls in Mexico, and Mexicans generally support Calderón's strategy. A recent poll that came out by the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that eight of ten Mexicans want the military to continue in their role on the drug war.

Most Mexicans say that the government is not winning the drug war, but the majority wants it to keep fighting the bad guys. So it's a bit of a disconnect. When the candidate says, "I'm going to reduce the violence," they want that. They want the violence to end. But when they say "I'm going to do it by changing policy," the majority want the government to keep confronting the cartels.

The economy is another top issue. What are the economic priorities are for the next administration?

The two PAN presidencies in the last twelve years have had stable but fairly slow growth. [Mexico] was hit quite hard in the 2008 world recession because of its close ties to the United States economy. But it seems that in the last couple of years there was a real pick-up, and it's been doing quite well. It has a lot of positives: It has very strong macroeconomic fundamentals; it has a strong independent central bank; it has a quite low debt-to-GDP ratio; it's one of the highest-ranking countries in Latin America on the World Bank Doing Business surveys, so for an emerging market it's a good place to do business. All those things are good.

But there are things on the agenda that the next president will need to deal with. One is energy reform. Mexico's energy sector is closed; the constitution states that it has to be run by the state. Everyone agrees that Mexico needs more investment, more technical capacity, and to grow production. To get to the next level and keep production growing, they need a lot of foreign direct investment. Many people feel that if they open the energy sector, it will bring in foreign direct investment; it will make the country more competitive; it will lower energy costs for businesses broadly, which will be good for the private sector in general, and there will be a lot of good effects and economic growth.

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Brianna Lee is a production editor at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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